JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Growing up in The Congo four decades ago, Dikembe Mutombo didn’t have Basketball Without Borders. He barely had a basketball.
The global development program hadn’t formed yet and somehow Mutombo found his way to the game and ultimately, the Basketball Hall of Fame, like Hakeem Olajuwon before him. Those two giants became popular in the States and yet somehow, back in their homeland, the sport still didn’t resonate thickly among kids or managed to divert their attention from soccer or cricket.
That’s partly the reason BWB was created, to raise basketball awareness in places around the world where the game could use an assist. The NBA (along with FIBA) has played a major role in funding and promoting BWB and Africa was, and is, the biggest test. Africa is the last frontier for the NBA; in relation to its large population, the number of NBA players born and raised on the continent is quite small. The athletic talent is abundant, yet there’s a serious lacking of infrastructure and proper coaching. So since 2001, summertime basketball academies run by BWB volunteers are tapping into a swelling number of curious kids.
This week, BWB is conducting daily clinics in Johannesburg for teenagers flown in from all over Africa, giving them a chance to be put through much-needed fundamental drills and get tips from dozens of NBA players and coaches. They’re also outfitted by Nike. And the capper is an exhibition game on Saturday with NBA players, only the second time that’s happened on African soil.
Standing on the front line of the mission is a familiar face who is giving the finger wag to anyone who says the game isn’t growing in Africa.
“Many didn’t believe us, or that this would happen,” said Mutombo. “And I have to admit, this is amazing, to see how this has grown. When I first became part of the program, we couldn’t get three NBA players to help out.”
Well, now there’s a line of players willing to sacrifice a week of their off-season to spend in Africa each year and especially to play in the Johannesburg exhibition, which began in 2015 and officials anticipate will be a once-every-other-year event.
Among those on hand this year: Dirk Nowitzki, Joel Embiid, Kyle Lowry, Kristaps Porzingis, Serge Ibaka, CJ McCollum. Team World powered past Team Africa to win 108-97, with Team Africa's Victor Oladipo winning MVP.
It’s also a labor of love for Masai Ujiri, the respected Toronto Raptors general manager who spends every summer hop-scotching around his home continent to spread the good word of basketball and tap into a largely unexplored base. It’s quite a chore to find and develop talent; none of the African countries, for example, have ever advanced out of the qualifying round during Olympic play. Still, he’s hopeful that, in time, basketball will gain traction through academies, the way baseball set up shop in the Caribbean in the ‘60s.
“They start out raw, and you don’t know where it will lead, but after a while they develop and continue to develop,” Ujiri said. “We just have to be constant in our approach.”
The current prized pupil of BWB is Joel Embiid, who attended a clinic several years ago in Cameroon held by Luc mbah a Mute, now with the Houston Rockets. Embiid became a quick study, tossed aside his soccer ball and now is the foundation of the resurgent Philadelphia 76ers.
The grassroots program is run yearly by NBA executive Kim Bohuny and steered in Africa by Amadou Fall, and the success of the 2015 game in Johannesburg spread word of mouth among NBA players. This year’s game will be played in a larger arena and be promoted by a “basketball zone” which will feature NBA attractions and games. It’s now fashionable among NBA players to accept an invitation to participate when called upon, although coming to Africa never ran out of style with Mutombo.
He’s still a constant presence in Africa with BWB and considered the “grandfather” of the program, which only makes Mutombo wince because it means he’s getting older. Otherwise, he loves the designation and embraces it, actually.
He and Olajuwon pulled a surprise and suited up for the 2015 game; the retired players drew a standing ovation when they checked in and when Olajuwon made a basket with the Dream Shake, the eruption was euphoric. Mutombo said he isn’t playing this time, adding, “I left my shoes at home on purpose.”
He will, however, break a different kind of sweat when the ball goes up Saturday.
“When I see the turnout and the level of interest, it brings tears to my eyes,” he said. “I thank the commissioner for bringing the NBA here. I think the next step is to see how many more basketball academies will open. Here in Africa, 65 percent of the population is under age of 16. We cannot allow them to not learn how to play the game of basketball. A lot would love to try the game. They want to be part of it. They think, `maybe someone will discover me.’
“When I got drafted in 1991, I told the commissioner that my mission would be to go back to Africa to see if there would be more young African players who will play this game after me. Hakeem started it, Manute Bol picked it up, I came next. I walk around keeping my head up because I’m so proud of the work we’ve done and continue to do.”
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